Fame has its limits, even in a culture that worships celebrity. That is the lesson from the rise, fall and political resurrection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He won election in a carnival atmosphere, the 2003 recall, because he was a Hollywood superstar and had a reputation, manufactured though it was, as a tough guy who could tame Sacramento. He won reelection in a landslide because he started behaving like a governor, instead of an actor playing the part -- but only after Sacramento tamed Schwarzenegger.
For as trite as it may seem -- the story has been oft-repeated since the myth of the Phoenix was first told -- the roots of Schwarzenegger’s comeback lie in the ashes of last year’s special election debacle.
His failure to pass his package of ballot measures, the most public humiliation of a dazzling career, banished the conceit that Schwarzenegger’s celebrity could sell anything, that swagger and snappy quotes could take the place of substance and a serious effort to work within the political system.
Schwarzenegger helped make amends by quickly apologizing for his misstep. But perhaps more important, he internalized the angry message from voters who overwhelmingly rejected his measures, realizing, in the words of one advisor, that his job was about “governing” not simply “being governor.”
Or as Don Sipple, a Schwarzenegger strategist during both the recall and special election, put it, “When you’re dealing with policy, you’re affecting people’s lives. It’s no longer about you. It’s about them.”
Luck counts for a lot in politics, and Schwarzenegger had more than his share this election year.
He benefited from an unanticipated surge in revenues that spared him a protracted budget battle and, better still, allowed him to pour billions into popular programs.
He drew a hapless opponent in state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who never recovered from a nasty springtime fight for the Democratic nomination. And Schwarzenegger also enjoyed the benefits of a pliant Legislature, run by Democrats who made common cause with the Republican governor on several high-profile issues, even if it meant knocking the legs out from under Angelides and his struggling campaign.
But none of that might have mattered if Schwarzenegger had not changed his approach to a job he once seemed to treat as a flight of fancy, or an extended exercise in self-promotion. He replaced advisors favoring combat over compromise with a team more willing to work within the very political structure that Schwarzenegger once promised to blow up. He made peace with old enemies, and picked fights with old friends, including the unpopular President Bush, to advance a decidedly more centrist agenda. (Few seemed to care that he broke his promise and scooped up millions of dollars in special interest money to fuel his political recovery.)
Subsuming his ego -- no small task -- Schwarzenegger set out to rebuild the trust he squandered in the special election by moving around the state in a series of deliberately small-bore events, the sort that would land him on the evening news in Salinas, rather than network television or “Entertainment Tonight.” It gave the governor a chance, aides said, to reconnect with voters in a more intimate setting that emphasized achievement over histrionics.
Californians are not exactly fickle when it comes to their celebrity politicians. But once elected, it takes more than a smile and a compelling back story for an incumbent to succeed. George Murphy, John Tunney and S.I. Hayakawa all captivated voters for a time. But soon enough their novelty wore off and each served but a single term in the U.S. Senate.
Even the iconic Ronald Reagan saw his popularity fall during a first term spent quarreling with campus protesters, fighting a recalcitrant Legislature and pursuing an ill-conceived bid for president -- his version of Schwarzenegger’s flier on a special election.
Reagan’s winning margin plunged from just about 1 million votes the first time he ran for governor to roughly half that when he was reelected in 1970. Some of that falloff could be attributed to a tough political year for Republicans nationally. And, as Reagan’s former advisor, Stuart Spencer, noted, “When you make decisions you [tick] certain people off.”
Still, much of the foundation for Reagan’s successful national political career was built in his second term in Sacramento. “Reagan became successful when he became substantive,” said political analyst Tony Quinn, who served as a GOP legislative aide during Reagan’s governorship.
The same can be said for Schwarzenegger. This year, he cut bipartisan deals to fight global warming, boost the minimum wage and reduce the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. He also made infrastructure -- arguably the most eye-glazing topic on the planet -- the center of his legislative focus, underscoring his new brass-tacks approach to governance.
Schwarzenegger calls himself a man of the middle, one who is tax-averse, socially moderate and “environmentally progressive,” which just happens to describe the sort of voter who often decides statewide elections in California. The wonder is that he ever veered so far off course. Some blame bad advice. Others a misguided attempt to politically reposition himself in the event Congress changed the Constitution, allowing him to run for president.
Whatever the reason, Schwarzenegger was willing -- eager, even -- to change direction once his rightward shift brought failure. The switch, which occurred at whiplash speed, raised questions about the governor’s core values and opened him up to that most familiar of political attacks, the charge of being a flip-flopper.
Angelides pressed the case fitfully, but it hardly mattered. After all, shedding one’s past is no sin here in the land of second chances.
“In California, people are always reinventing themselves,” said Marty Kaplan, a dean at USC who has worked in Hollywood and in national politics. “We gave [Schwarzenegger] the same chance we give ourselves. All that it required was that he not fool us twice.”